SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The Best Way to Review Your Mistakes for the SAT/ACT

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Apr 16, 2015 2:42:00 PM

SAT Strategies, ACT Strategies

 

feature_Questioned_Proposal
What do you do when you've been prepping tirelessly for the SAT, sit down to take a practice test...and then have to face all the questions you missed? Since banging your head against a wall is not very effective, other strategies must be employed. This article lists ways to grapple with missed questions on the SAT, with targeted strategies for students scoring in the 500 and 700 ranges on the SAT (or the 21 and 31 ranges on the ACT).
 

All these tips apply equally to the SAT and the ACT, though for simplicity I'll mostly use the SAT for specific examples in this guide.

feature image credit: "Questioned Proposal" by Ethan Lofton, used under CC BY 2.0/ Cropped from original.

 

Reconsidering How You React to Mistakes

Getting questions wrong on an SAT practice test or ACT practice test can be anywhere from mildly disappointing to absolutely infuriating. Discovering that you have answered a question incorrectly can trigger any or all of the following impulses:

Impulse 1: Focusing on what you did well and ignoring what you did wrong (not helpful).

Impulse 2: Disregarding questions you got wrong because they were just "careless mistakes" (not helpful).

Impulse 3: Focusing on the fact that you got things wrong and ignoring review in favor of self-loathing (popular among some overachievers, and yet...still not helpful).

Reviewing the questions you missed, however, is an extremely important part of test prep. As this article on preparing for the LSAT states,  "Reviewing...preptests is the point at which you switch over from merely practice to actually teaching yourself."

 

Strategy: Analyze Your Confidence for Each Question

It is not only important that you review missed questions, but that you also review them effectively. A helpful way to do this is by going through the questions you messed up on and sorting them into categories.

Many times, questions can be sorted into these general categories: Skipped (guessed randomly on), Guessed (through elimination), and (thought you) Knew. Seeing how many questions you skipped, how many you guessed, and how many you were certain were correct can help to focus your studying.

For instance, if the majority of the questions you missed were ones you skipped answering, it's possible that you could be eliminating more answers before guessing on more questions. Alternatively, you might be accidentally skipping over some questions because you're rushing and end up zipping right past them.

Once you've sorted the questions you missed into these general categories, make sure to review all of the questions you guessed on, including the ones you answered correctly. Compare these questions with the questions you guessed incorrectly on. Was it just blind luck, a combination of the process of elimination and Pin the Pencil on the Scantron®? Or is there a difference between the way you approached the guessed questions you got correctly and incorrectly?

 

body_scantron "140617_FF_CHEAPDEGREE" by Natalie Freitas, used under CC BY-S.A. 2.0/Cropped from original.
Pin-the-pencil-on-the-Scantron®: probably the worst party game.
 

 

Strategy: Understand the Reason for Missing Each Question

Sort the questions by the fundamental reason you missed them. Don't just think, "Well, I got that one wrong." That's not useful in figuring out where you're really making mistakes.

I find that nearly all mistakes fall into four categories:

Time Issue: You were pressed for time.

Question Comprehension Issue: The question was too complicated, you weren't exactly sure what it was asking, or you were tricked by the question.

Procedural/Content Issue: You didn't know how to find the answer to the question, or didn't know the material the question covered.

Careless Error: A.k.a. careless mistakes, a.k.a. stupid mistakes, a.k.a. the most frustrating mistakes of all.

We'll go more deeply into each one. I'll also give you tips on how to prepare, depending on whether you're scoring around a 500/21 level or around a 700/31 level.

 

Mistake Type #1: Time Crunch

These are questions where you were pressed for time and couldn't answer the question. This is often the case with skipped or incorrectly guessed questions.

Out of all the questions you missed, how many of these "ran out of time" questions are there? If the majority of your missed questions happened because you were running low on time, you may have a time management issue.

 

Do You Have Good Time Management?

So how do you know if you have a problem with time management? One way to check is by taking a timed practice test (under realistic conditions). If you run out of time to answer all of the questions, continue answering questions, but mark the questions for which you needed the extra time. Afterwards, you can go back and categorize the questions you needed extra time for and sort them into the remaining three categories of errors.

How many questions did you get right with extra time, as compared to questions you answered correctly during test length? If your scaled scores differ by more than either 50 points on any section of the SAT, or by more than 4 points on any section of the ACT, then you have a time management issue.

For more information about why time management is so important, look into our article on scoring perfectly on the SAT.

If you want more specifics on how to combat time management weaknesses, especially for Reading, definitely check out 10 Strategies for getting a perfect SAT Reading score and how to avoid running out of time on SAT Reading (or ACT Reading).

You may notice particular skill weaknesses across all the questions you ran out of time on. Make a note of these: if you know what is wrong, then you can fix it. If there are no commonalities between the questions, you might just be spending too much time on some questions, and you need to improve your fluency with taking the test by following some of our suggested actions.

 

Actions for a 500/21 Scorer:

Don't get sucked in - monitor your time on each question. On the SAT, the breakdown of total time allowed for each question (including double-checking!) is as follows:

  Section

  Total Questions

  Total Time (minutes)

  Approximate Time per Question  

Reading

  52

  65

  75 seconds

Writing and Language

  44

  35

  47 seconds

Math (No Calculator)

  20

  25

  75 seconds

Math (Calculator)

  38

  55

  86 seconds

 

And here's the breakdown of time per question for the ACT:

 Section

  Total Questions

  Total Time (minutes)

  Approximate Time per Question  

English

  75

  45

  36 seconds

Math

  60

  60

  60 seconds

Reading

  40

  35

  52 seconds

Science

  40

  55

  52 seconds

 

You can do the math yourself, if you want the practice! For more information on the SAT and timing, try our expert guide on the SAT's length, or read our equivalent article on the ACT's length here.

 

Do you find that you always run out of time?

One of the best strategies for students scoring in the 500 range is to just guess on the hardest questions. In fact, because of the way the SAT is scored, you can actually guess on up to 25% of the multiple choice questions and still get a 600.

How do you know which questions are the hardest ones? In Math, the questions at the end of each section are the most difficult. This means that, for instance, in the 20-question Math section, you should completely skip the last 4 questions. Focus the energy you would have spent on those questions on getting the other 16 correct. For more surefire strategies to attain a 600 in SAT Math, read our article on improving your SAT Math score.

Reading is a little trickier, since it includes lengthy reading passages, and the questions are not (for the most part) ordered by dificulty. Our blog has more specific information in our post on improving your SAT Reading score, but the basic takeaways are:

->When faced with a lengthy passage, read and mark-up the questions first. This way, you will already know the information you should be considering when reading the passage.

->Skim the passage on your first read-through. Sometimes, several lines of the passage will not have relevance to any of the following questions, so why spend extra time on a detailed read the first time through? If possible, try finishing the passage in 3 minutes or less.

->If you cannot answer a question in 30 seconds or less, guess "B" on it and move on. You won't have points taken off for incorrect answers, so if you guess the same answer choice for every answer you don't know, you should get it right about 25% of the time.

Overall, practice can help you get faster at taking the SAT/ACT, and the more high quality practice questions and tests you do and take, the more comfortable you'll be.

 

Actions for a 700/31 Scorer:

If you're already scoring in the 700 range, and you know time management is not the issue, chances are you just need to up your speed (whether for one particular type of question or overall). Again, this comes from practice, like endless lay-up drills in basketball or scales on a musical instrument.

When I had to learn piano scales as part of the graduation requirements for my Master's program, I started out by seeing what my natural pace was (average of 1 note every 4-5 seconds). I followed this by calculating the difference between that and the target pace (1 note/second) for the exam, then setting incremental goals for myself so that I could create a realistic timeline for learning this new skill and focus my practicing towards that timeline.

The same strategy works for test prep. For every section, you should calculate your own time per question. For ACT Math, for example, there are 60 minutes to solve 60 questions. This means an average of 1 minute per question, but the questions at the end will likely take you much longer than 1 minute. This means you might have a goal of 30 seconds per question for questions 1-20, 60 seconds per question for #21-40, and 90 seconds per question for #41-60. 

The key here is that during the test, if you find yourself spending more than your target time goal, you need to skip that question. You want to avoid getting sucked into wasting time on a question. On these points every question is worth the same point, and at your level every point counts. Therefore, your goal should be to answer as many questions correctly as possible.

 

Mistake Type #2: Question Comprehension

SAT questions might need to have one unambiguous answer, but that doesn't mean that they can't trick you with the wording of the question. Oddly, this is especially lethal for those who read quickly, because it can lead you (and by you, I perhaps mean me) to focus on the wrong part of the question.

body_satsamplemath1.png

The first time I looked at this question, I read through it too quickly and solved for p, rather than 3p + 2.

Always make sure you know what the question is asking before you look at the answers. Often, the SAT will give several incorrect answer choices that each could be correct if you'd misread the question a particular way.

 

body_its_a_trap
"It's a trap!" by anneheathen, used under CC BY 2.0/ Cropped from original.
Not all traps are this obvious.
 
 

Actions for a 500/21 Scorer:

In some cases, it can help to write out the information the question provides in simpler form. Take this sample math question:

In one semester, Doug and Laura spent a combined 250 hours in the tutoring lab. If Doug spent 40 more hours in the lab than Laura did, how many hours did Laura spend in the lab?

Now, write out the information given in the question separately, in your scratch area:

Total hours in lab = 250

Laura = x hours

Doug = x + 40 hours

Solve for x (take that, Doug!)

It might seem redundant, but writing out the information separately not only gets it into your brain, but also prevents you from grabbing the wrong number or unit of measure when you go to plug it into your equation or answer. If you're concerned that writing everything out will take too much time, underlining the relevant information in the question can also be useful.

Example (underlining mine):

Which of the following does the author suggest about the "female goats" mentioned in line 59?

A) They secreted antithrombin in their milk after giving birth.

B) Some of their kids were not born with the antithrombin gene.

C) They were the first animals to receive microinjections.

D) Their cells already contained genes usually found in humans.

 

Actions for a 700/31 Scorer:

Slow down when reading the question for the first time. Students who leave time to double (or even triple) check their answers sometimes don't bother re-reading the question on their second (or third) time through, which means that if you misread the question the first time, it doesn't matter how many times you double-check your thinking process - you won't be able to correct your mistake. Because of this, re-reading the question is important as well, because it allows you to make sure the question is asking what you think it was asking when you go through it again.

 

Mistake Type #3: Procedural/Content Issue

If it is a multiple choice question, identify what type of question it is. For instance, we at PrepScholar have identified the major SAT Reading passage question types as:

1. Big Picture/Main Point

2. Little Picture/Detail

3. Inference

4. Vocabulary in Context

5. Function

6. Author Technique

For a breakdown of the SAT Math question types, read our article here. If you want to learn more about the Writing section, try our complete breakdown of SAT grammar rules.

Is your problem with how to answer certain types of questions, like Inference questions? Or is the problem knowing the content, like specific grammar rules or trigonometry formulas?

 

Actions for Everyone:

For these kinds of missed questions, there are two main steps to take.

Step 1: Find a source for lesson material. For content issues, this could be class notes, textbooks on the material, or a test prep book or a complete prep program like PrepScholar. For procedural issues, definitely check out SAT prep books and sites on strategies.

Step 2: Practice answering questions, over and over and over (see above regarding lay-ups and scales), reviewing them well.

If you follow these two steps, you will be full of well-founded confidence when questions that previously stymied you (whether in terms of how to answer them or what they were asking about) pop up on test day.

 

body_consumerconfidence"consumer confidence" by Chris & Karen Highland, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/ Cropped from original.

Cape not suggested as part of your test-day apparel.

 

Bonus (or possibly not, depending): You are far less likely to drive your siblings crazy by drilling yourself on practice questions than by drilling yourself on piano arpeggios! Not that I would know from personal experience. Nope.

 

Mistake Type #4: Careless Error

My favorite type of mistake - seemingly innocuous, but with a potentially fatal impact.

Story time: Once upon a time, during my very sleep-deprived junior year of high school, I added 2 and 2 together to get A) 8 and B) 2. At various points on the SAME CALCULUS TEST. And while yes, I was sleep-deprived, this was not the only factor.

Rushing headlong through answer choices (or problem solving, in the case of some math questions) is often the prime culprit for careless mistakes. This is completely understandable, as you are taking a timed test, but ultimately it can be counterproductive if you don't have the appropriate backups in place.

 

Common Careless Errors

Here I've broken down some of the most common careless errors by subject area.

Reading: Misreading the question, particularly by not noticing words like "except." On practice tests, I would sometimes lose valuable time by trying to choose among answers that seemed to be all correct, only to realize that the question was actually asking for the one that was INcorrect.

Math: Solving for the wrong value. I cannot stress enough how annoying it is to finish a practice test and realize you solved for the wrong value (particularly since these are often answer choices). See my previous example of the sort of questions where this can happen particularly easily.

Writing and Language: Reading through the question too quickly and choosing "NO CHANGE," particularly with questions at the end of the section. Don't just select "No Change" if the sentence looks right to you - also make sure you can eliminate all three other answer choices.

 

Actions for a 500/21 Scorer:

Ask yourself why you made the careless mistakes. Were you feeling pressed for time? Were you actually pressed for time? What can you do in the future to help head this off? Check out our article on top SAT test day tips for some helpful suggestions.

 

Actions for a 700/31 Scorer:

Make sure you leave yourself enough time to go back over questions - not just going over your work, but redoing questions (especially those you are unsure of). PrepScholar co-founder Allen Cheng suggests leaving yourself at least 5 minutes to spare in his article on how to get a perfect SAT score.

 

How to Streamline Future Review

Okay, you know everything now about what you were doing wrong with your reviewing of missed questions. How can you make it more efficient (and effective) in the future? A few final tips:

1. When going through tests, always mark the questions you think you have a 3/4 or less chance of getting correct. Circling the numbers of the questions works well for me, because you can circle them lightly on your first time through the test, and circle ones you're still unsure of more heavily on your second time through. This way, you can review everything you were unsure about, even if you ended up getting them right. Knowing you've looked over everything you were unsure about, even if you ended up getting the question correct, will make you more confident you're choosing the right answer in the future, because you will have put in the time.

2. Just like a tooth with a cavity, the best way to get better is to...drill.

I have no regrets about this wordplay. I am also 100% serious. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make answering the questions you have trouble with more routine, which in turn can get you closer to perfection. See also my earlier explanation for why you should structure your practice.

 

body_Facepalm

"Facepalm" by Philipp Boisserée, used under CC BY-ND 2.0.

 

3. Don't immediately go back and try to re-do missed questions (or if you do, don't let that be the only time you re-do them). It's more helpful to let some time pass in between attempts - a day is usually good enough, but anywhere between few hours or a week can also work, depending on the person - because then you can try it again fresh.

4. Keep a notebook or computer record of questions you got wrong, sorted by subject (Math, Reading, Writing and Language for the SAT, or English, Math, Reading, and Science for the ACT) and question subtype (e.g. big picture vs. little picture questions in Reading). Note for each question why you missed it and how you plan to remedy this in the future (even if the remedy is just "Practice this kind of question until it appears in my dreams, possibly accompanied by piano scales").

 

Reviewing questions you got wrong is integral to effective test prep. Learning from one's mistakes is not just a saying - it reflects the reality that can help you break through a score ceiling and drastically improve your score on the the SAT or ACT. The trick is to know not just where you are making mistakes, but to practice those same types of questions over and over until you have mastered them.

 

What's Next?

What's a good target score you should aim for? Find out in our guides for the SAT and the ACT.

Want to score a perfect SAT score or ACT score? A perfect scorer has the advice you need. Read our guide on getting a 2400 on the SAT or getting a 36 on the ACT.

Not sure when to start studying? Get advice on how much time you should put into studying for the SATs here.

If you want more specifics on how to prepare for each section for the SAT, try our study guides for low scorers (Math, Reading, Writing) or high scorers (Math, Reading, Writing).

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Compare Prep Methods

Free eBook: 5 Tips to 4+ Points on the ACT

 

Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.



Get Free Guides to Boost Your SAT/ACT
100% Privacy. No spam ever.

You should definitely follow us on social media. You'll get updates on our latest articles right on your feed. Follow us on all 3 of our social networks:

Twitter and Google+



Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!